Friday, July 13, 2012

An Idol's Fall From Grace

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. - Exodus 20:4-5

In sports, particularly in this country and particularly in collegiate athletics, highly successful coaches have received adulation to the point of idolatry for decades.  Think of Knute Rockne. Bear Bryant. Woody Hayes.  Bo Schembechler.  Phog Allen. Adolph Rupp.  John Wooden.  Dean Smith.  Mike Krzyzewski.  Bobby Bowden.  Joe Paterno.

Each of these men was at the helm of a perennial powerhouse that received (and often still receives) national attention as a result of their work.  Each of them ran their respective programs (or in Krzyzewski's case, still runs) for a long, long time.  The least tenured of these men, Rockne, coached at Notre Dame for 13 years before he died in a plane crash.  The longest tenured, of course, was Paterno, who led Penn State for just shy of 46 seasons, with 16 more as an assistant tacked on to the front end.  And all of them were flawed.  Wooden ignored the boosters that paid players under the table and helped him reap more talent than any other program.  Hayes famously, and inexplicably,  punched an opposing player during a game.  Rupp was a virulent racist who only took white players on his team.  And Paterno evidently assisted in the cover-up of his former assistant's serial molestations of young boys, allowing Jerry Sandusky an additional thirteen years to target and abuse children, often on school property.

In the wake of Louis Freeh's independent investigative report, I am mystified as to why anyone could continue to defend Paterno's legacy.  I am not unaware of what he did for the school during his time there, playing a leading role in its transformation from a rural cow college into a large, nationally recognized powerhouse (both academically and athletically).  He and his wife donated more than $4 million to the school themselves.  The library has a wing named after him.  His players graduated and were successful in their careers.  I know all these things.  And his positive actions have created a culture of extraordinary pride in the university by all associated with it, as I have learned from having an alumnus for a roommate.  But all of that good work has been incredibly diminished.

Paterno, for really his entire tenure, was proud of his "Grand Experiment" to both educate young people and win football games, and to do it all with honor.  But the grand jury report of November, and the Freeh report released yesterday, have shown conclusively that Paterno failed to be honorable when the situation called loudest for it.  The evidence is there, in e-mails and interviews and statements, that Paterno and others around him corrupted themselves into believing that the university and the football program were more important than the welfare and safety of young (and highly vulnerable) children.

It kills me that people associated with the university and the Paterno family are still claiming that their idol handled the situation appropriately or that he did not participate in the cover-up for Sandusky's benefit.  That is simply willful ignorance at best, outright lying at worst.  The university president, Rodney Erickson, also didn't want to admit that the culture of the football program and Paterno's living legend status allowed this tragedy to happen. As he said: "The question is really, were there aspects about the football program that allowed some of these things to continue on? We will certainly look at that." Erickson added that football is "an important part of our whole educational process here."  Hmmmmm.  Again, the evidence is right there, with the story about the janitors who were afraid to report the juvenile sexual assault that they saw with their own eyes because they were absolutely sure that they would be fired.

That Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz (to name the principals) succeeded in keeping all of this under wraps for thirteen years in the age of the internet and immediate information is simply remarkable.  The two shower incidents on campus with eyewitnesses, in particular, were never even reported to university police, much less real police.  After the 2001 shower incident, Paterno laughably kept the story under his hat until Monday, because he "didn't want to disturb anyone on their weekend."  And every effort was made to be as "humane" as possible to Sandusky, with zero apparent regard for his victims.

So what should happen to Penn State, and to their athletic department and football program?  The university is quite obviously staring down the barrel of several civil lawsuits that, with all of this damning evidence, will almost certainly cut a giant chunk out of its $1.8 billion endowment.  And every higher-level official who had knowledge of the situation needs to go.  Spanier, Curley, and Schultz are fired, retired, or on leave, but the school should additionally cut them out of any retirement plans or severance packages if that is a legal option.  I find it hard to believe that any of them will be hireable after this sordid affair (and Jay Bilas makes an excellent point that the NCAA should give lifetime show-cause bans on all three of them, particularly Spanier).  But what of football?  Paterno wrote, in a letter shortly before his death, that this was not a "football scandal."  But that statement is utter horseshit.  It is absolutely a football scandal, perpetrated by a football coach in football buildings and on football trips by luring victims with the prestige and goodies associated with the football team, with the knowledge (after the fact) of football staff, and covered up for more than a decade at the expense of the victims in order to protect the football program.  That sounds like a football scandal to me.  What might be appropriate penalties?

I do not believe that the school should vacate any wins or titles.  It is true that none of this happened on the field, but in any case I don't hold with the policy of pretending that games never happened, or that players never took part in them.  You can't rewind time and unplay the games.  So let his 409 wins stand, and the conference, bowl, and national titles.  What does need to happen is that the statue of Paterno needs to be taken down, and before the start of school this fall.  It would be inappropriate to leave such a memorial to a man who, in the end, failed to live up to his own grand pronouncements about what he was doing at the school.

Penn State clearly needs a culture change throughout every level of its administration, and to that end, they should not have a football season this fall, and allow their athletes to pursue football elsewhere if they so desire.  Sure, Paterno is gone, and none of the kids on campus (or coaches, now that Mike McQueary's contract has expired) were involved in any way with these heinous crimes.  But for too long at Penn State, football has been the driving force behind university policy, and perhaps the only way to change that is to eliminate it for a time, say at least a season.  Spare me the sentiment about football helping bond the campus together during the university's darkest days; from start to finish, football is the reason that this scandal unfolded the way it did, and should bear the heaviest burden.

There are plenty who will say that current players, coaches, and students will be unjustly punished if Penn State cancels its season (or is forced to by the NCAA), and that is a fair viewpoint, albeit one I respectfully disagree with.  The players would, in such a scenario, almost certainly have the option of transferring without penalty to another school.  The coaching staff knew that there might be deep ramifications to this scandal when they signed on (and I'm glad that they went outside the program to hire Tom O'Brien).  And the students will miss seven or eight opportunities to congregate on Saturday morning, drink themselves silly, and cheer on their team.  But that's just too bad, because how else is the school supposed to change the culture that enabled a predator to run loose for so long?  If Happy Valley is hosting football games just like any other season this fall, how will that help the healing process? Won't it, instead, encourage people to treat the scandal as an unfortunate event that, while tragic, has no lasting impact on the school or anyone's life, except the victims?  No, shut down football for at least a year.

Again, Joe Paterno was at heart a good man who did lots of great things for Penn State and made some terrible mistakes that will indelibly stain his legacy.  The victims of Sandusky's crimes will never get their childhoods back, or in all likelihood their mental health or peace of mind.  But since the university was so complicit in what took place over such a long period of time, it should be punished appropriately, and remind all of us sports fans that idolatry has a price.